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Film review: ‘Glass’ questions the idea of superheroes

M Night Shyamalan ties up a trilogy and constructs his own cinematic universe in Glass.

There are a few things you can bank on when M Night Shyamalan directs a film: his hometown of Philadelphia is likely to be the setting, the director will make a cameo appearance and there will be a bet-you-did-not-see-that-coming twist. Glass, the third in the Eastrail 177 trilogy that connects 2010’s Unbreakable with 2016’s Split, checks all these boxes.

The big reveal at the end of Split was that it served as a sequel to Unbreakable. David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a fatal train crash in Unbreakable, is in pursuit of the Horde—Kevin Wendall Crumb’s (James McAvoy) multiple personalities. His 24th and last alter is the most demonic.

Glass opens with David on the hunt for the person who has kidnapped four teenage girls. Dunn is searching for the kidnapper and the cops are searching for Dunn, whose hooded vigilante look has earned him nicknames such as Overseer and Green Guard. In cornering Kevin and the Horde, David also makes himself obtainable to the authorities.

David and Kevin (and his multiple personalities) are interned in a high-end psychiatric hospital where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) has three days to cure these men of their delusions of grandeur. The third inmate is the heavily sedated, brittle-bodied Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who prefers to go by first name Mister, second name Glass.

The story builds nicely, with Paulson’s fine rendition of the unorthodox professional and James McAvoy dominating as Kevin, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. This gives the actor 24 alters to play with – among them a nine year old boy, a matronly woman, a beast – and he seamlessly flits from one to the other with tiny physical and vocal shifts.

As the unbreakable David, who can also see visions when he touches people, Willis is adequately stern. Jackson is clearly enjoying playing a man with a god complex, whose machinations have had a cataclysmic impact on David and Kevin.

Shyamalan also introduces characters who connect the three central players to their past – Elijah’s mother (played once more by Charlayne Woodard), David’s son (Spencer Treat Clark, who played Joseph in Unbreakable 19 years ago), and Kevin’s former victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who played the same part in Split).

This is the Shyamalan version of a cinematic universe, but it’s one he’s not overly attached to. He questions ideas of heroes, superheroes and ordinary people. He celebrates the mythology surrounding comic books, but also questions whether those ideas and archetypes can twist our view of reality.

There’s a lot going on in this film, some of it spelt out rather literally, some of it visually conveyed, as it should be, and some of it trademark Shyamalan. Unlike Unbreakable, however, it doesn’t leave the layers there for the audience to peel back, but the director himself removes each one.

Unfortunately the reveal is not (to borrow a word used in the film) perspicacious, or unexpected enough. By the third act, just like Mr. Glass, the plot shatters and Shyamalan gets hoisted by his own petard even as he finally ties up a trilogy, after 19 years.

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